In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Years ago I had a statistics professor who would set our heads spinning by filling a whiteboard with numbers and formulas. When we had finished scribbling furiously, he would say, “We could do it that way, but it would be …” – over the semester we learned to wait for that pause and yell “too hard.” Then he’d show us an easier approach.
If I were following his lead this morning, I’d start with the moment in the gospel when Matthew ruins a perfectly good parable by having Jesus offer a simplistic explanation to the disciples. It seems to defeat the whole point of speaking in parables. I’d leap right to the moment when the weeds, the evil doers, are thrown into the furnace of fire, where we’re assured there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But if, like me, you believe that the story of the resurrection is the story of the redemptive power of God’s love, that would be … – do you remember your line? – too hard.
It’s especially too hard right now. In these pandemic days, with the death toll passing 140,000 in our country alone, it feels as though today’s gospel skips the most important part – I want to know what those good and bad seeds do between sowing and harvest – I want to know how they live together in their own short season in the sun.
It’s also too hard because these simple divisions of people into good and bad have become toxic, even paralyzing. It’s too easy to convince myself arrogantly that I’m in the “good” camp and become complacent. How many of us have secretly hoped that the next person to get sick will be someone who refused to wear a mask? I know I have. Resisting the temptation to make myself the judge of the “bad seeds” and to dream about the day when they get what they have coming is perhaps my biggest spiritual challenge.
So instead, I’m going to talk about the angels. My grandkids came to visit from Albuquerque a week ago (and what a miracle to even be able to say those words right now in Florida!). The day before I read today’s scriptures, we took them to a nearby zoo for some mask-wearing, physically-distanced ziplining. I watched the three of them each climb 70 feet into the air, ascending ladder after ladder to a series of platforms that stretched high into the sky. At the top, when they were as small as birds, each one clipped a pulley to a line, took a step into thin air, and glided safely to the ground.
Then I read about Jacob. He fell asleep with his head on a rock "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” All night long, the angels came and went. The Book of Genesis doesn’t tell us what the angels were doing, other than going up and down those ladders, but when morning comes, Jacob is moved to exclaim, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ Both halves of that sentence seem important to me right now.
I don’t know about you, but I had forgotten all about the angels. I think at some point I relegated them to the easy faith of my childhood. I suspect many of us have memories that involve a flowing white nightgown and a frenzied parent running around pinning wings on our backs. Until I watched my grandkids climb those ladders into the sky, I had completely forgotten that they are real. The Episcopal dictionary describes them as “created spirits” that are sent as messengers of God to human beings. They are “pure spirits” that do not depend on matter for existence. They are “in the divine service” and “sent to serve.”
How cool is that?
If you believe the op-ed writers, things are bad, and they are going to get worse. This week’s headlines included “The next disaster is just a few days away,” and “The great American crack-up is underway” and “For the next six months we’re trapped on a leaking ship…” It’s not an easy time to remember that “the Lord is in this place.”
And yet, for one week, in the middle of a pandemic, three children whom I love traveled from New Mexico to Florida to remind me that angels are real. We swam in the ocean, we watched manatees mate from our kayaks, and we balanced on stand-up paddle boards as we scanned the lagoon for dolphins. (Well, they balanced. I fell in.) For one week while I was preparing these words, we gloried in creation and in each other. In Jacob’s dream, Yahweh said, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” and “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised.” I’m struggling to describe what happened, but ever since those three angels reenacted Jacob’s vision in my heart, I’ve been moving through the world buoyed by God’s promise.
I was already immersed in angels, so it seemed serendipitous when they appeared in the gospel, too. Our second set of angels this morning shows up in the wheat field. Years ago, as I was trying to come to grips with just how fragile we embodied beings are, a wise woman asked me a powerful question. “Are you in charge?” she said. She saw that I was trying to carry problems on my shoulders that weren’t mine to carry. Her simple question helped me shift my perspective, enabled me to rearrange the items in my backpack so I could keep on climbing.
That’s what the angels in today’s gospel do. When the servants ask if they need to take care of pulling the weeds, the master tells them to leave them.“Let them grow together until harvest time,” he tells them, and then the reapers – the angels – will take care of it. In other words, “You’re not in charge.” The fact is, in today’s gospel, the wheat and the weeds have no choice but to stand among each other in that field, roots intertwining, leaves doing their best to reach toward the sun. Waiting together for the angels. I’d be lying if I told you I know what that means.
So I’m here today not to congratulate the good seeds or to wag a finger at the bad seeds or to speculate about which I’m most like or how best to live together or even when harvest time might come. I’m here today, in the midst of this global pandemic, to tell you that I believe in angels.
I’m not advocating for magical thinking. Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” I’m not advocating that we neglect our responsibility to be outspoken agents of God in this broken world. I’m just saying that now might be a good time for an assist from some divine spirits sent to serve.
I’m praying for angels. I don’t know if they will whisper ideas in the ears of scientists as they seek a vaccine or breathe wisdom into Supreme Court justices as they deliberate or nudge Joe Biden as he chooses a running mate. Maybe they will prop up a tired nurse or swat a virus particle away from someone frail or carry John Lewis in a triumphant parade into paradise. Today’s scriptures remind me that I don’t need to know.
I just know I’m sleeping a little better since I remembered the angels.